In defence of newspapers and serendipity

One of the things that Clay Shirky mentioned in the panel with Andrew Keen that I moderated at Ryerson University recently (my post with video here, tweet-stream here and live-blog here) was an idea that he has also written about before on his blog: namely, that one of the principal functions of a newspaper was to aggregate completely unrelated things, primarily because the newspaper company (and its advertisers) had to appeal to the widest possible group of potential readers, and couldn’t possibly know in advance which parts of the paper they were likely to be most interested in. As Clay described it in a recent talk he gave at Harvard:

“The idea that someone who is doing a crossword puzzle may also want news about the coup in Honduras or how the Lakers are doing — it doesn’t make any sense. It’s never made any sense, in terms of what the user wants. It’s what print is capable of as a bundle.”

In my desperate attempt to justify the continued existence of newspapers, I asked Clay whether that aggregation didn’t serve some kind of purpose, but he argued that it did not — that it was simply a holdover from the industrial process by which papers were created and distributed. But is it? I know that we increasingly believe that “if the news is important, it will find me” (I’m actually the number one result in Google for that phrase) and that aggregation of whatever kind we require can be performed by our friends, by service like Techmeme and Tweetmeme, by RSS feed readers, by Twitter, and so on. Heck, I use all of those things and have come to rely on them.

But are they enough? Is there a purpose in aggregating the horoscope and the weather and the news about the coup in Tegucigalpa? I think there is, and I think newspapers do a pretty good job of it.

It’s not just because they have to — although that’s part of it. Maybe I’ve just been trained as a newspaper reader for my whole life, but I like the serendipity of tripping over fascinating articles about things I would never have known even existed were it not for a newspaper. To take the Saturday Globe and Mail as an example, I read about an up-and-coming Muslim hockey player, a profile of Paul Shaffer, a review of the punk band Gossip, an article about contentious city council politics in Aurora and a great feature on retirees and their vanishing pensions.

Could links to those stories show up in my RSS reader? Possibly – but I doubt it. The mix is just too eclectic. And I would never have sought out the article about the Muslim hockey player, because I don’t particularly care about hockey and therefore I would likely never have come across it. Would the retirement piece ever make it to Techmeme or some similar aggregator? I doubt it. But it was still worth reading. And so were the half-dozen or so articles I can’t recall right now, which I tripped across as I read the paper. I would never have deliberately sought them out either.

This is what has come to be known as the “serendipity defence” for newspapers, which others have written about both positively and negatively (including at Ethan Zuckerman’s blog and in Shane Richmond’s column, which refers to a great piece by Steven Berlin Johnson on the topic, which I highly recommend). I realize that there is far more content — from a vast diversity of sources — available on the web than there is in a newspaper. But who will filter and condense and aggregate it for me the way a newspaper does? I still haven’t found something that does the job quite as well. Perhaps someday I will, but until then I will keep reading newspapers.

119 thoughts on “In defence of newspapers and serendipity

  1. Eclecticism or “serendipity defence” a unique value of newspapers? I stumble upon so many intersting things on the web, and there so many curating blogs worth subscribing to … The only USP a printed newspaper has is the paper it is printed on, and this is something I really like from time to time, especially on week-ends and vacations. But that's about it …

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  4. Here's what Bill Keller says about the serendipity of digital NYT:

    “The conventional gripe print-lovers make about online news is the lack of serendipity. But, of course, the website and various apps offer alternative forms of serendipity — the most e-mailed list, recommendations from people in my TimesPeople universe, tweets from fellow readers. All of those alert me to interesting work I might not have gone looking for on my own.”

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  6. What I’ve found working in the advertising industry is that newspapers have been on the decline for the past 10 years (that I’ve been in the business). Other sources, like the SRDS Circulation (Circulation 2009®, the printed version) shows that over the past twenty years, since the 1980s, that newspaper circulations have been in a downward spiral. The only reason that I know this is because at a former agency, we kept all of the books that SRDS published because it was not a feature available with an online SRDS subscription. Thus, the logic (above) is fatally flawed in that 89% of several MILLION readers is a much more significant number than 89% of one million, (or several hundred thousand) readers.

    Even if aggregators aren’t perfect yet, they can be augmented by the online sites CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC, etc, and local sites as well for the human interest stories that readers desire. For instance, I can set up iGoogle to feed me the aggregators and the news sites of my choosing. Plus, with Twitter on iGoogle, I can also follow these sites for up-to-the-minute breaking news, plus add in local sites for the “human flavor” I desire.

    While the large metro and national papers have been in decline, my unscientific (and unmeasured) small-town newspapers have actually started to gain subscriptions as well as online readership. To me, this points to a trend that supports localized news (in a big city, maybe neighborhood sites, or sites for certain zip codes, rather than online or print subscriptions to the Chicago Sun-Times or the NYTimes. While readers want to be informed of global events, they also want to know about things in their respective living areas; crime rates, building permits, candidates for Alderman or City Councilman, restaurant reviews, etc. Sites such as Chicago’s reviews crime statistics, permits, home sales, restaurant inspections, new business openings, business permits, housing permits, and even local events. (There is a drawback to EveryBlock: their main news feed often comes from the Sun-Times or the Tribune, but I believe they are working to move away from reprinting stories from the local papers—both of which are currently in bankruptcy).

    I’m not trying to be critical; rather, I am providing a point of view from someone that works with clients that have, for as long as I’ve been in advertising, been steering their money away from the papers. Part of it has to do with the outrageous cost (comparatively) newspapers charge for both print and online services, declining circulations, and honestly, years of poor service from most of the nation’s metro papers. For years the newspaper conglomerates sat in the cat bird seat and were unwilling to negotiate costs (other than volume discounts) while TV, Radio, Online, and Out-of-Home providers dictated their sales by how the advertising market fared. The other reason that previous clients (car dealerships especially) have moved away from the papers is poor reproduction quality, even when in color. Thus, in a karma-like turn of events, newspapers are now reaping what they sowed.

    Additionally, newspapers (print) and now online are extremely cluttered with advertisers and they’re either unwilling, or unable, to provide separation between competitors (like hospitals) from one another. Online papers don't supply special sections like the print versions, and the special sections were only instituted to help boost circulation.

    There was a crucial juncture in newspaper history where the papers had a choice of going one of two ways: providing straight news, or adding in special sections to help boost sales. To make a long story short, the special sections weren't able to help circulation numbers. The newspapers simply did not listen to what their readers wanted: News.

    So, that’s my .02 cents. Hope that it made sense and provides some perspective.

    Thanks for making me use my brain!

  7. Matthew, can't we replace the serendipity of newspapers with the great online curators who go out of their way to find all manner of items, some topical, some timeless, and aggregate them in a less automated manner? is the best example I can think of but there are many others. I have to say that the stuff I encounter on Jason's site is just as wonderful a mix of enjoyable stuff I would never have sought out as what I read in my print copy of the New York Times.

  8. Matthew, can't we replace the serendipity of newspapers with the great online curators who go out of their way to find all manner of items, some topical, some timeless, and aggregate them in a less automated manner? is the best example I can think of but there are many others. I have to say that the stuff I encounter on Jason's site is just as wonderful a mix of enjoyable stuff I would never have sought out as what I read in my print copy of the New York Times.

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